Monday, April 3, 2017

...And The Crowd Goes Wild!

Recently I was flipping through a back issue of The Comics Journal and enjoying another look at a 1980 interview with artist John Byrne--all of 30 years old at the time and at the peak of his runs on X-Men and Captain America (though you might describe his time on the latter as more of a guest-artist stint, in light of its brevity). The Journal, known for its frank and comprehensive articles that one could find hard to put down once you'd begun reading, featured an extensive 22-page discussion with Byrne conducted by Journal staff Mitch Itkowitz and Consulting Editor Michael Catron, while also including inker Terry Austin, writer Roger Stern, comics critic/researcher Peter Sanderson, and publisher Ed Via.

In one of the outtakes of the interview, an exchange between Byrne, Itkowitz, Stern, Austin, and Via caught my eye, where Byrne was expressing a wish to dispense with any of the Captain Americas who appeared after 1945 when the original Cap disappeared. The discussion eventually turns to, as Stern puts it, the "made-up comic book stories" (heh, as opposed to regular comic book stories, but you probably get his point) that featured Captain America during this time, and one story in particular.

Byrne: So the Human Torch did not fly to Jupiter, passing clouds on the way...
Itkowitz: Yes, that was a silly story. "I'm breathing in outer space, fellows. With no air I'm keeping in flame!" Wonderful story. I don't know how they did that.
Byrne: He didn't fall from Jupiter to Earth, either.
Stern: And Cap didn't catch him when he fell from Jupiter, either.
Via: That's a good catch.
Byrne: That's a real good catch. [imitating radio commentator's voice] "An' he's caught him, an' the crowd goes wild!"

I'd only vaguely remembered coming across that story*, but the impression it had left on me was that it was a fun, harmless read, as comics stories from the 1940s were doubtless meant to be, no more, no less--an indulgence in sheer fantasy. At the time, comic books were items casually passed around and flipped through as little more than light-hearted kids' entertainment, far from the more involved storylines and conflicted characters that came our way in the '60s. Those earlier Golden Age characters were taken at face value--"Sun Girl," for instance, appears in costume and becomes attached to the original Human Torch as both sidekick and love interest, but mostly seems to be along for the ride on his adventures. I never figured out why she's called "Sun Girl," or what exactly she brings to the table besides a comely figure; apparently she carries around a ray gun that fires (what else?) sunbeams. Now how can you not laugh at something as superficial as that.

*Human Torch Comics #33, 1948

And so I dug up and dusted off an old reprint of this story, "The Ray Of Madness!", just to get an idea of the levity involved in the back-and-forth with Byrne. Was there more to this 10-page story than the running joke it's been for decades? I mean, how preposterous could it really be?

Well, a little preposterous, yes. How about "adventurous," instead? (And a lot of fun!)

The source of all the trouble for everyone turns out to be mysterious rays being fired at Earth that are causing all of the planet's animals to go mad and attack and kill the human population. Called in to assist "the nation's foremost scientists" in investigating the crisis are Captain America, the Torch--and Sun Girl, whose input has no doubt been sought out because it's bound to be insightful. Actually, no, her input essentially amounts to fretting and reacting to startling news. Given that these are American comics, it came as no surprise to readers that America leads the way in world crisis management--and so all the parties meet with Dr. Jefferson at, yes, the Jeffersonian Institute in New York to compare notes.

Yikes! That would seem to be that, doesn't it? Who the heck in 1940s America is going to stop an attack from Jupiter?

Come on, you know who!

Don't you just love the fact that the story has the Torch starting his flight to Jupiter from the airport? He could have just walked out of the Institute and taken off from there, or from a rooftop, or even the bus stop. Maybe the Torch is more media-savvy than we thought. And just for the record, Torch, nobody needs to "take care" of Sun Girl, bub, because she's--Sun Girl! 'nuff said!

So the Torch begins his journey. It turns out his mission away from Earth only lasts a few hours, round trip--and so we've obviously waded into preposterous territory, haven't we. In this case, that also means coming perilously close to a situation rife with

And in 1940s comic books, what other kind of science is there?

We don't want to get bogged down in facts here, since, clearly, facts are the last things we're likely to find in this story..  But here are the head-shaking statistics which our story freely tosses to the curb:

  • At its closest distance to Earth, Jupiter is 365 million miles away; in a worst-case scenario, with the distance being its greatest, that jumps to 601 million miles.
  • Back in 2006, our fastest spacecraft launched from Earth took an average of over five months just to reach Mars, which is about 34 million miles away at a minimum; in 1964, the spacecraft of the time would take over seven months.

Sun Girl could no doubt do the math if we substituted Jupiter and bumped the technology down to 1940s standards--but suffice to say that even the zooming Human Torch would be in one-way transit for over a year at least, assuming (a) his flame didn't fizzle as soon as he left Earth's atmosphere, and (b) his flaming power could last indefinitely, despite how staying constantly ablaze and at top speed would tax it.

However, to play devil's advocate... if for some reason the Torch could attain the speed of light, and Jupiter happened to be at its average distance of 483 million miles from Earth, it would take him about 43 minutes to get there. The Avengers' Captain Marvel could swing that; but for even an android Torch, zooming through Earth's clouds is the best he could hope for as far as setting any speed records from point to point around the globe.

On the other hand, maybe those clouds sticking with him all the way to Jupiter was meant to compensate for the void (to say nothing of the distance)? *shrug* So, before you know it:

Fortunately, the Torch has landed directly in the vicinity of the red hot "pool of peril," where the ray of madness originates. Otherwise, our poor guy would have to spend, oh, several human lifetimes searching a planet the size of Jupiter, a world so large that over 1,300 Earths could fit inside it. But he's right on target, and proceeds to not only destroy the pool, but also survive the attack of those who protected it--the savage Kleezar and his tribe of animal-like "Jupiter-men." The Torch catches a break when Kleezar's men are destroyed by a barrage of fiery meteors and Kleezar himself becomes a victim of the flood of fire-water resulting from the Torch's destruction of the pool.

Only seconds after fighting a major battle, and the Torch is ready for the return trip to Earth. What a guy. What a hero.

But it may not be smooth sailing for the Torch. Back on Earth, with a telescope that would put the Hubble to shame, Dr. Jefferson monitors the Torch's approach; but the even sharper-eyed Captain America notices from at least 33,000 feet below that the Torch's flame has gone out, and leaps into action, while Sun Girl... well, Sun Girl basically tells Cap that there's nothing to be done. For once, I'm with Sun Girl. What exactly is Cap going to do about someone plummeting from space? Salute? Well, when you've got a story that paraphrases John 15:13 when the situation is at its most desperate, you'd better believe that Captain America is going to be the best outfielder for the job and make the big play.

And yes, it was lucky the Torch happened to be falling within the perimeter of Jefferson's observatory, instead of, say, Uruguay.  But rest assured that Sun Girl would be proud of him no matter where he fell to his doom.

You can catch (ha ha, get it?) our own Human Torch from the FF in a similar predicament in a separate post, though there would be more than enough trouble on planet Earth to keep him busy.


Colin Jones said...

And the Torch lands on the solid surface of Jupiter even though Jupiter is a gas planet with no solid surface. But you don't need to go back to the '40s for examples of weird science - the Fantastic Four regularly traversed the galaxy in a few hours despite the fact that even at light-speed it would take 100,000 years. And Counter-Earth was completely undetectable even though its' gravitational effects on the other planets would mean it was spotted within hours. But why stick to comics for examples of weird science - the latest issue of 'Scientific American' has a cover story about the plan to send "star chips" to Alpha Centauri mounted on giant space-sails which would apparently travel at 20% of light-speed. After reading the article I concluded that the idea was insane and unworkable but it's backed by the likes of Professor Stephen Hawking. They've been reading way too many comics and sci-fi novels !

Comicsfan said...

Colin, I'm assuming you meant to say "starships," otherwise we'll have to assume that for some reason junk food is being sent to Alpha Centauri, as fast as possible. Let's see NASA explain that to the budget commission!

Also, just for the sake of argument, I think it's been established that the FF get around so quickly in space because they travel through sub-space to circumvent the time factor. We could also assume that the High Evolutionary made Counter-Earth undetectable to its sister planet on the other side of the sun--after all, a guy like him isn't likely to let a little detail like that slip through the cracks.

Colin Jones said...

CF, "star chips" are little silicon chips (the kind of things found in a phone or tablet) which are attached to a space-sail about 4 meters wide. A laser beam is then fired at the chip which makes it travel at 20% light-speed towards Alpha Centauri which it will reach in about 20 years. The chip would collect data and beam it back to Earth. The plan is to send a fleet of star-chips hoping that some will make it even though most will be destroyed on the journey. But the article in 'Scientific American' just showed how near-impossible the idea is - for example the material for the space-sail doesn't even exist yet and will need to be invented from scratch ! And when beaming back their data the chips would need to accurately target tiny Earth from 4 light-years away. It makes a colony on Mars look easy by comparison !

Colin Jones said...

By the way, it's nothing to do with NASA - the idea comes from an indepedent group of scientists and entrepreneurs.

Comicsfan said...

Yikes, I stand corrected, Colin--thanks for the fascinating info!

Y'know, I wonder what the chips need with a sail, since it sounds like the propulsion is handled by the chip, thanks to the laser beam? It also occurs to me that the Jupiter-2 (had it stayed on course) would have reached Alpha Centauri in only 5.5 years, and that was with technology dating way back to 1997. I wonder what the think tank for this project has to say about that? :D

Anonymous said...

If that's true, that we can reach Alpha Centauri in six years or so, then interstellar exploration is possible (maybe unmanned exploration, until we figure out suspended animation). I didn't know that. That kind of blows my mind.


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